While it doesn’t speak for all Indigenous peoples in Canada, the Assembly of First Nations has long been their most prominent public voice. This week, a protracted period of upheaval culminated on Wednesday with a vote to remove RoseAnne Archibald as its national chief.
The A.F.N. isn’t the only national organization that has experienced leadership turmoil recently. For example, being the Conservative Party of Canada’s leader hasn’t been a job with extended tenure in recent years. But the events leading up to the removal of Ms. Archibald, who became the first woman to be elected national chief a little under two years ago, were unusually fractious and suggestive of wider problems in the group.
And the situation is riddled with counterclaims and denials.
The motion that ultimately ousted Ms. Archibald, at a virtual meeting that was open only to the CBC, was prompted by an independent human resources review that concluded that she had harassed two employees. The report also said that five employees experienced reprisals by Ms. Archibald and that she breeched their privacy. Four of the five people are women.
The report, prepared by a law firm last year, said the working environment at the A.F.N. was “highly politicized, divided and even fractured.”
Ms. Archibald was suspended for a period after the complaints were made. An attempt to remove her as national chief last July was postponed until a final version of the investigation was released.
Throughout, Ms. Archibald has portrayed the investigation as a “smear campaign” brought in response to her calls for an examination of the assembly’s finances, which she said were handled through a “crooked system” that diverted hundreds of thousands of dollars into personal bank accounts.
“What is happening is wrong, but it’s not about me,” she wrote last year on Twitter after her suspension. “It’s a manufactured distraction from my repeated calls to investigate the past eight years of wrongdoing within the A.F.N.” (Earlier this week, Ms. Archibald closed her social media accounts, and she has not spoken about her removal.)
In the end, the special meeting voted 71 percent in favor of removing Ms. Archibald — 163 of the 231 votes cast. An interim national chief will be appointed to serve out the remainder of Ms. Archibald’s term, which expires in July 2024.
Niigaan Sinclair, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Manitoba, told me that the turmoil was a consequence of the fact that the assembly “is not a government; it’s really important to identify that A.F.N. is simply just a lobby group for chiefs.”
He said that until 1969, the National Indian Brotherhood, as it was then known, was a political body pressing for Indigenous sovereignty. But the government at the time, led by Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the father of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, struck a deal under which the A.F.N. began receiving substantial amounts of federal money to deliver various programs and services.
“It was a beautiful way to take an organization that was invested in sovereignty and autonomy for First Nations and basically make it a program delivery service of the federal government,” Professor Sinclair told me. “And the A.F.N. never recovered.”
While Professor Sinclair said that Ms. Archibald was “certainly deserving of some discipline” on the personnel questions, she nevertheless had raised legitimate and important questions about how the assembly operated and where the government money that flowed into it ultimately ended up.
“None of the answers to those questions are going to be delivered now,” he said.
Professor Sinclair questioned why the vote wasn’t held later this month, during the annual national gathering of chiefs, and noted that the 231 chiefs who participated were just about a third of those who were eligible.
“Are we satisfied, really, with 200 chiefs showing up to a social meeting online as the constituency that removed her when they could have waited just two weeks?” he said. “It just tells you that the regional chiefs had it out for her two years ago because of the questions that she was asking. And now they’ve succeeded in removing her.”
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A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.